Christmas, Parties and Skiing – Is it All Downhill from Here?

Foster Ski Team in Madesimo

This month has been a frenzy of activity on both the family and work fronts as well as being a special time to reflect on the year just finished.  It has included a Board meeting and Christmas shopping in New York, a skiing holiday with the boys in the Italian Alps, a Select Committee hearing in Parliament and two global webinars with the IBLF Leaders Council.  It has been enlightened by watching performances of early English music at the Peaslake village Candlelit Concert, something a bit more up-to-date with Coldplay at the O2 and a new twist on the Robin Hood story by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.  I enjoyed four celebratory Christmas dinners; one with some thirty members of the IBLF organisation, one with my fellow ICAI commissioners and secretariat, one with my fellow Tuscan wine-hike friends and, best of all, one with the soccer dads I play 7-a-side football with each Saturday at my boys’ school.  Christmas and the New Year have been celebrated with the family in great style.  Meanwhile work on the application for Free School status for Peaslake School has continued apace.

The world really is a scary place! Alex and Matt in their Christmas "morph" suits - and we wonder why there is a youth unemployment problem!

In the wider world the year is ending in as volatile and uncertain a position as it started.  After a year of unprecedented change and turmoil in the Arab world, the death of Osama Bin Laden, the ongoing euro crisis, popular unrest in Russia, and the Japanese tsunami among others we are all looking into 2012 with few fixed points to anchor to.  Growth is anaemic at best in most developed global markets with little sign of breakthrough.  The political elites of the world continue to meet and talk with no obvious ability to make a sustainable difference to confidence levels, and the global business community has yet to make the case clearly for its role as the driver of smart, inclusive and responsible growth – particular in relation to the biggest global scourge as we enter 2012 – youth unemployment.

Coldplay in full pomp at the O2

Among the highlights of the past month were the two International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) Leaders Council webinars which we conducted from the Showcase facility at Accenture in London.  We connected very senior business leaders from Europe, India and the US in a pair of facilitated dialogues about the state of the world and the effectiveness of business as an agent for positive change.  We were able to take advantage of some research which had been conducted for us by Peter Lacy of Accenture Sustainability Services who had interviewed a number of our members and teased out two key gaps in terms of how leaders view the challenges in this space; an execution gap and a transformation gap.  While many organisations are struggling to make good internally on the current promises made by their leaders with regard to sustainable growth, the scale and complexity of the issues such as youth unemployment, inequality, corruption, resource scarcity is such that it will require a step change in models for action and collaboration to make a meaningful difference.  One concrete action which emerged from the webinar was a commitment by the attendees, who included leaders from Infosys, Tata, Shell, Telefonica and Accenture among others, to pool examples of activities and learnings in the area of youth employment and employability programmes. We wish to see if a combined effort could start to shift the needle to more substantive real impact on the ground in communities blighted by this in both the developed and developing world and at the same time work to enhance the reputation of business as a force for good.

The other player in this story is government and the group has decided to work on a clearer “proposition” or “offer” from business to government as to what business can do and the kind of public private partnerships that would make a real difference.  Who knows if anything will come of this, but it could be part of an answer to the various “Occupy” protestors around the world – we went out and interviewed some of the St Paul’s protestors in London to provide food for thought for the webinars and while some of their demands remain incoherent there is something important behind the slogans.  You can see the video we made via this link. http://vimeo.com/channels/iblf

Crossing Westminster Bridge on my way to the International Development Select Committee Meeting

The role of government in development was also at the heart of my attendance at the first meeting of the International Development Select Committee in the UK House of Commons since the initial reports came out from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), of which I am a member.  The format of the meeting involved the Chief Commissioner being questioned by MP’s from across the parties about our work and our initial findings, particularly with regard to the topic of protecting UK Aid from the risk of corruption – which we had given an “amber-red” overall assessment.  It was followed by the Permanent Private Secretary for the Department for International Development being quizzed on the response from the department to our findings.  I was encouraged to see the high degree of apparent notice that has been taken, from the Secretary of State on down, of our work and the “transformational” effect that the head of the department described.  They have come back, as required, with their action plan for change and we will be keeping an eye on progress.  We have also been preparing the work for our next batch of reports, including one which I am taking the lead on concerning the effectiveness of aid in support of electoral processes.  With a number of high profile elections coming up in Africa this year it will be a very topical and interesting review of a difficult area!

The Foster shopping team pause for breath at the top of the Empire State Building

I enjoyed a few days in New York attending the latest Heidrick and Struggles Board meeting where the highlight was a review of the new talent strategy for this organisation.  This is key for any company but is of course particularly important for Heidrick, as it is in the business of executive search and leadership consulting.  It was very interesting for me to apply to the lessons learnt on talent segmentation and global diversity from working on the Accenture Talent Strategy over the years with my friend Adrian Lajtha, the Chief Leadership Officer, to this smaller, but also complex company.  By coincidence, it was a pleasure this month to catch up with Adrian and his wife Rachel, who have just moved into Peaslake, our local village and to have them join us at the Candlelit Concert in the local church on behalf of the village school which I chair.

The lights of New York - including quite a few shops!

I also took advantage of the trip to New York to have Sandy and the boys join me for some festive retail therapy and a great time was had as they did their best to stimulate the US economy!  A particular highlight was an evening trip to the top of the Empire State Building to see the city lights.

On returning from New York, the boys and I changed clothes and repacked to head out to Madesimo, a small ski resort in the Italian Alps above our home on Lake Como.  We had been watching with some trepidation for the arrival of snow, but fortunately a few big dumps the week before was enough to have half the resort open and we were able to ski on virtually deserted pistes for three very tiring days.

Matt in "controlled" flight on the slopes of Madesimo!

I was pleased to survive in one piece and even gained the grudging respect of Alex (17) and Matt (14) who said at the end that my skiing had improved as “they were now not having to wait so long for me at bottom”!  We navigated our way back down the mountain in our Chinese-built Great Wall 4X4 which I must admit is not much of advert for multipolar technology!

There has been a lot of hard work to fit in over the holiday period on Peaslake School.  This month, after completing our consultation with the local community, we decided to apply for government funding and Free School status for the village school which we have run as a community for the past 18 years.  Not too surprisingly, the bureaucracy is already apparent in the application process and a 100 page initial submission for consideration is required.  We have waded our way through the first pass (and many chocolate biscuit-fuelled meetings!) and are looking to complete it during January before the submission date in February.  One of the key concerns that the village has is how to protect the school in the event of a future change in government policy and so we are also turning our minds to contingency plans to allow the community to restart the school if we gain Free School status only for it to disappear in the future.

A packed church for the Peaslake School Nativity performance

As Chair of Trustees I also attended a magical Nativity performance by the children of the school in the village church, where I found myself sitting next to a young lady who is now providing teaching support at the school, and who, as a former pupil, I remembered performing alongside my boys in the Nativity more than a decade ago!

The boys’ grandparents joined us at Winterfold for a great family Christmas and we gathered around a large christmas tree which Alex and I had cut down from our own woodland and hauled back to the house.  Between Christmas and New Year we enjoyed a fun trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company performance of The Heart of Robin Hood – a reworking of the original story in a joint venture with an Icelandic theatre company which saw Robin as a baddy who starts out robbing from the rich and not giving to the poor!  It is a dynamic and imaginative production and it is packing families in over the holiday period.

Our Christmas Tree plucked from the Winterfold Heath

The New Year has now been successfully seen in, with Alex and several of his friends taking over our London flat to watch the spectacular fireworks to mark the Olympic year around the London Eye…and apparently leaving the apartment in a fit state for future habitation!
But what kind of a year can we look forward to?  The answer is that no-one really knows.  More than ever there are few guideposts and little evidence of a clear direction of travel.  Europe will probably continue to dominate the headlines with a strong likelihood that the patch-up efforts undertaken to date to avoid certain countries leaving the euro will unravel again.  The uncertainty and ongoing volatility in this key set of markets will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on other economies and dampen any kind of global recovery.  There will be a series of key leadership transitions and distractions as the US becomes inwardly-focused on its Presidential election, France faces a likely new President, we watch the transfer of power begin to new leaders in China, while Russia will see Putin back as President after a messy election.  This does not raise one’s expectations of global leadership solidarity and we have to hope that the various economic slides which are likely to occur are not the sort of shocks which will require decisive action.  Here in the UK we will have the Olympics to cheer us up… not to mention the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee…but the hard questions about how we will return to sustained economic growth, meet our burgeoning youth unemployment challenges and shape our place in the world have yet to be asked, let alone answered.  It will take more than a few gold medals and street parties to get to that.  Nonetheless at a personal level I am looking forward to another year of diverse experiences and creating even further “definition” to my post-Accenture life….and some more trips in the camper van!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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